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Monday profile: Cristi Hegranes

Submitted by on 1, October 5, 2009 – 6:00 amOne Comment

24The seeds for Cristi Hegranes’ press revolution were planted in 2004, when she was working as a correspondent in war-torn Nepal. The experience led her to believe that it made more sense for local people in developing countries to write their own stories.

So in 2006, the 28-year-old journalist who has worked in several major U.S. cities and abroad (and slung drinks from the Fireside Lounge since 2007) founded The Press Institute for Women in the Developing World, which trains women to tell their own countries’ stories. Since then, her outfit has trained more than 140 women in 22 countries to report their news, lifting them from a life of poverty to places of prominence in their community.

Hegranes is putting the finishing touches on the institute’s new newswire, which she says will better spread its stories around the world. (The stories will be available for sale to news organizations, with most of the cash going to the reporters who wrote it.)

And at 7 p.m. October 15, the institute will host its “Kick off Kenya!” launch and technology party at the Fireside, which is at 1453 Webster Street. They’re looking for donations of old (but operating) digital cameras and laptops for their new training site in Kenya (and those donations are tax deductible). They’ll have an African drum circle, refreshments and a raffle.

For more information on The Press Institute, you can e-mail Hegranes at cristi@globalpressinstitute.org.

How did you come to create The Press Institute?
The Press Institute came to be while I was working as a reporter covering the civil war in Nepal in 2004. I realized that the model of mainstream foreign correspondence was inadequate. Articles produced by outsiders inevitably lack the social, historical and political context that makes a story whole. In many ways, I was the ideal foreign correspondent – I speak Nepali, I had been in country for some time, I had government and civilian sources. Still, it didn’t seem right.

I was in a small village in Nepal that was populated only by women, children and old men – all of the men and boys were either in combat, had been kidnapped by guerrillas, or had left the country in search of work. That evening, I gave a notebook and a pen to the matriarch of the village. I told her to use the notebook to say all of the things she had never said. What she produced was a piece of powerful journalism, simply because she was offered the rudimentary tools to do so.

In March of 2006, I took the plunge, left mainstream media and set out on the path to create a new model of journalism education that empowered local people on the ground, in some of the world’s darkest corners, to use the skills of journalism to uplift themselves and their communities and educate the world.

What are some of the accomplishments of the Institute since you got it off the ground?
In less than four years, The Press Institute has provided journalism training in 22 countries around the world to more than 140 reporters. We have three very distinct sets of goals that we measure our success by.

First and foremost, we aim to provide responsible journalism training to local people in developing countries. The second goal relates to community development in the areas where we operate. Finally, we aim to disseminate responsible journalism internationally in order to present global issues from local perspectives that are rich with context, increase global awareness on issues critical to human rights and development, provide strong, ethical news content from all over the world and portray life in the developing world accurately and ethically. To date, we have achieved all of our strategic goals with amazing consistency.

For your efforts, you won the Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism. And you’ve got several other major prizes under your belt.
I dedicated the Ida B. Wells Award to the Press Institute editors and journalists around the world who act with bravery and courage every minute of every day. This organization would be only a dream if it weren’t for the people around the world – from Chiapas to Kenya – who signed on and made it a reality. Prior to founding The Press Institute, I won several national journalism awards for my coverage of global AIDS policy and immigration and terrorism, including The Lifestyle Journalism Award and The Clarion Prize for Investigative Reporting.

How did you end up at the Fireside? And are you still working there?
I was a bartender while I was in graduate school in New York, so I know my way around a bar! I came to the Fireside just two weeks after it re-opened in 2007. While the Press Institute is in its growing stages, I have refused a salary in order to devote 100% of donated funds directly to in-country programs, journalist salaries etc. I am dedicated to working nights for as long as it takes to develop program sustainability.

How do you see your efforts dovetailing with the current bloodletting in the media industry and the loss of traditional foreign bureaus?
Our work is designed to fill voids left by dwindling bureaus and budget cuts. A very important distinction between our work and a lot of other “citizen journalism” endeavors is that The Press Institute trains people with the skills of traditional, ethical, investigative journalism. Today, The Press Institute is launching a new newswire in order to better disseminate our content around the world. Our local, in-country efforts provide news via print, radio and Internet in native language. The old newswire averaged 5,000 readers per day, and our goal is to quadruple that with the new site over the next three months. Our content is available for resale to news organizations, small and large, around the world for nominal fees, 95% of which goes to the reporter.

What’s next for the Institute? And what else are you working on?
The Press Institute is launching a new Global Training Site in Kenya in January of 2010. This will be our largest center, to date. We have also just received a large-scale contract to train 100+ reporters in Mongolia next year. Here in the U.S., we have just created a new department, Global Business Operations, which is a social entrepreneurship endeavor that will create for-profit, mission-centric businesses in the countries where we operate in order to generate local revenue for our programs. The first small business initiative will launch in Kenya in June 2010. It will be a full service media center and Internet cafe with educational programs, a gaming center, computer classes, IT courses for women and a childcare facility.

What are your favorite spots here in town?
The Fireside, of course!

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